“He was elated and proud of the fact that he was able to share his legacy with others and, most importantly, his grandchildren. Herman Russell had a major impact on many of us and he lived a great life.” —- Michael Russell, son of Herman Russell and CEO of H.J. Russell & Co.
What do the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the Georgia Dome, Turner Field, Phillips Arena, the downtown Atlanta skyline, the administration of the iconic Mayor Maynard Jackson and the Civil Rights Movement all have in common?
They all, in one way or another, bare the DNA of late, great business impresario Herman J. Russell.
The brilliant construction and real estate magnate passed away at age 83 — much like he lived — quietly, and leaving behind an enviable legacy and vast business portfolio that spellbinds his contemporaries and legions of admirers alike. And he leaves people searching for the right words to summarize the indelible impact the legendary businessman, philanthropist and civic leader made on the maturation of the city of Atlanta as a power player on the national and international landscape.
In addition to amazing people with his prodigious business exploits, many people were astounded by the remarkable humility and sense of humanity that belied the good natured disposition, which is too often uncharacteristic of those who have achieved Russell’s level of incredible success and fortune.
Russell loved sharing his inspirational life story with others and frequently regaled listeners with account of how he overcame racism, poverty, and a debilitating speech impediment to become one of the most successful African American entrepreneurs, and unsung heroes of the civil rights movement.
These are the reasons — along with a slew others —that cavalcades of dignitaries, civil leaders and politicians are streaming into Atlanta to pause and pay homage to one of the pillars of modern Atlanta.
“Today, our city lost one of the best men it has ever produced. No words can express the depth of our sorrow as we remember Mr. H.J. Russell,” testified Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed without a hint of hyperbole or overstatement.
Andrew Young, a former Atlanta mayor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, echoed Reed’s sentiments when he said, “[Russell] was one of the giants of our time. In every phase of Atlanta development from Hartsfield to the present, he was a major and dominant influence. Like Atlanta, he started off with a little shoe shine stand, now his company is a major influence in everything happening in the city. He had a good mind and sharp pencil.”
No tribute to Russell would be complete without a word from a mainstay of the Civil Rights era, where Russell worked behind-the-scenes to secure and provide financial support for its mission. “Herman’s spirit permeated the community. He was a great citizen, a great business man and a brother. I loved him and he will be missed,” said Civil Rights icon, Rev. Joseph Lowery.
“Mr. Russell was an extraordinary visionary, a dynamic leader and a philanthropist who uplifted and mentored so many. By building one of our nation’s most successful minority-owned companies, his legacy is a shining example for small business owners with big dreams. His brilliance is reflected across Atlanta’s skyline and throughout communities across the country. The world is immeasurably better because of Herman J. Russell,” said Atlanta City Council President Ceasar C. Mitchell
Herman Jerome Russell was born to Maggie Googson and Rogers Russell in Atlanta on Dec. 23, 1930. Russell, the youngest of eight children, grew up in the Summerhill neighborhood, in the shadow of the baseball complex he would later help rebuild into the spectacular sports edifice Turner Field, which would become at that time, the envy of Major League Baseball franchises.
The fact that his father’s entrepreneurial DNA was passed on to his son was clearly evident at an age when most school-aged boys were beginning to chase girls and distract themselves with other frivolities. Russell was only 12 years old when he founded his shoeshine business. And he was just a sophomore in high school – a mere infant in the business world – when he exemplified the level of business acumen that would turn him into a superstar in adulthood. Russell used the profits from his shoeshine business to buy a vacant lot, and then built a residential duplex, all while he was still a teenager.
Ever the enterprising adolescent, Russell used the revenue from his teen businesses to fully finance his expensive education at the private HBCU Tuskegee University in Alabama.
After returning to Atlanta upon graduation, Russell performed small-scale plastering and repair services until he inherited his father’s business, then known as the Rogers Russell Plastering Company, upon his father’s death in 1957. Russell almost immediately expanded the family business, taking on larger projects that ranged from home building to real estate investment.
During this period Russell owned several construction and real estate companies, among them H. J. Russell and Company, H. J. Russell Construction Company, H. J. Russell Plastering Company, Paradise Management Inc., DDR International, and Southeast Land Development Company. Over the next fifty years, he continued to build businesses, amassing one of the nation’s and the world’s most profitable minority-owned conglomerates.
Soon, Russell branched out from construction and property management businesses by adding communications, concessions, and sports franchises to his portfolio. At the same time, his construction partnerships expanded to include residential, educational, commercial, and recreational structures. Some of Russell’s better-known projects include numerous Atlanta landmarks, among them the Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Philips Arena, Turner Field, the Georgia Dome as well as the construction of the new trillion-dollar Falcons stadium.
“Herman Russell was a remarkable gentleman and I greatly appreciate the work he did in District 10. He left a lasting legacy that will be remembered for years to come.” said Atlanta City Councilmember C.T. Martin.
Russell was already millionaire builder before the civil rights movement led by Dr. King hijacked American consciousness. He befriended contemporaries like M.L. King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Vernon Jordan and Jesse Hill. To support the movement for equality and civil rights, he discretely financed the civil rights crusade, bonded out demonstrators and provided funding for political campaigns that helped pass landmark legislation to transform American society and race relations.
In 1994 Russell’s construction businesses were reorganized under H. J. Russell and Company. During this time, the company reported annual sales estimated at $150 million, with project offices in several cities from Miami, Florida, to New York City. Today, the Atlanta-based H. J. Russell and Company is a nationally recognized leader in the construction and real estate development industry, as well as the single largest Minority Business Enterprise real estate firm in the United States.
Throughout the decades of enormous success, Mr. Russell continued to give back to the community that nurtured his business pursuits. In 1999 Russell pledged $4 million to expand educational programs in entrepreneurship at Clark Atlanta University, Georgia State University and Morehouse College, as well as at his alma mater Tuskegee University. In December 2009 Russell’s family donated $1 million to expand a new facility of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Hughes Spalding.
Because of these dizzying exploits and success, the tributes continue to pour in for Russell, who will be laid to rest this week.
“My sadness is only eclipsed by the great admiration and inspiration that his life had up on my own. Having the privilege of knowing him since childhood, as I grew, I was able to watch Mr. Russell grow and build this beautiful city with his hands, his words, and his deeds. He was not just an example of self-made success, but a demonstration of a life well lived. His tremendous works can be found amongst the Atlanta skyline, the businesses he created, but most of all and the beautiful family that he raised. … He is one of the heroes of Atlanta’s story, a real life legend to now aspire to.” – Atlanta City Councilmember Michael Julian Bond.